New Bern, North Carolina


Map of Carolina

A map of Carolina by H. Moll Geographer.

Whether it is helping other countries, celebrities adopting foreign children, or people doing missionary work elsewhere, people always seem to be looking in other places instead of seeing what is right in front of them. The same can be said about history; there is so much history within our area that we do not even realize. We have heard the stories of Jamestown and the lost colony of Roanoke, but we rarely hear the stories that happen afterwards. What some may not know is that North Carolina is home to New Bern, the second oldest town in the United States. Whether you are a native to North Carolina or not, it is remarkable to get to hear some stories surrounding America’s humble beginnings.  Although America is considered to be fairly young, without a doubt it has vast deal of history, with the town of New Bern containing a hefty chunk of that history.

Before we can talk about the town of New Bern, we must start at the beginning – 18th century England. In 1710, there was a Swiss by the name of Baron Christopher de Graffenried who was known for his many adventures but because of this accrued a serious amount of debt. This led him to England where he met another Swiss named Franz Ludwig Michel. Michel had a connection with the George Ritter Company – which supported “silver mining, export trade, and colonization in the New World” – and Graffendried began investing stocks in this company (Basinger 3). Graffenried and Mitchell “received a grant of ten thousand acres of land from the Lords of Proprietors” (Chas. Emerson & Co.’s Newbern Directory 17).

1709. Christoph von Graffenried Queen Anne of England
Christoph von Graffenried with Queen Anne of England in 1709. Photograph by Sandstein.

During the time, there were many Germans who suffered the aftermath of the Spanish War of Succession (Henry 53). The Germans – called palatines – fled their homeland of the Rhineland and sought refuge in England. Poor and desolate, this influx of palatines became a drain on the economy. Another group causing problems for the English monarch was the Swiss Anabaptists. They sparked controversy with their opposing views on baptism (Bainton 127). On March 7, 1526, the Zurich council ordered Anabaptists drowned, in cruel parody of their belief” against baptism (Walker 450). Ironically, these persecutions had the effect of spreading the Anabaptist propaganda throughout Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands (Walker 450). Soon their movement would land in England where, differing from sixteenth century Germany, “the spiritual descendants of the left wing gained a permanent foothold and did even more than the established church to fashion the temper of England and America” (Bainton 134). One of the main issues regarding the Anabaptists was that, due to religious defiance, they were considered difficult to rule over causing tension with the English monarch. The land grant Graffenried received was an opportunity to remove the ‘unwanted’ groups from England’s vicinity. Graffenried made an arrangement with Queen Anne of England who was “anxious to help the twenty thousand Palatines who had left their war-torn home, Palatinate, Germany, and migrated to England” (Basinger 3). Teaming up with Michel, Graffenried assembled and led six hundred palatines and Anabaptists, and fifteen hundred Swiss, to the New World (Chas. Emerson & Co.’s Newbern Directory 17).

The prospect of beginning anew seemed ideal to the war-stricken palatines but for the Anabaptists, it was a different scenario. The sole reason behind their deportation was their faith (Allred & Dill 362). The Anabaptists were considered “left wing of the Reformation” due to their belief in the separation of church and state, reluctance to swear oaths, serve civil duties or pay taxes leading them to be marked as “undesirables” (Allred & Dill 362). Translated council records show the consequences if the Anabaptists were to return to England (Allred & Dill 364-370). The severity of the situation is showcased in these documents, as the measures taken for the Anabaptists’ compliance go as far as imprisonment until the day of departure and “loss of life or limb” for anyone who dared return (Allred & Dill 370).

New Bern sign
Photo of a sign in New Bern, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Under the leadership of Graffenried, this group of misfits finally set sail to the Carolinas. Along the way, they stopped by Holland where some of the voyagers – mainly the Anabaptists – remained, seeking help from the “tolerant Dutch government” (Allred & Dill 362). The rest would venture on and when they finally made settlement Graffenried, being of Swiss origin, named the town New Bern – similar to how ‘New York’ was named. Of course, New Bern was not completely uninhabited. The town’s location on the Neuse and Trent Rivers attracted the Tuscarora, a Native American tribe, and it is believed that they had settled there thousands of years ago (Hutchinson 7).

Within a year of their settlement, there was hostility between the settlers and the Tuscarora tribe. There were many instances where the European settlers deceived the tribe. Tensions rose as the settlers (including English settlers who settled before Graffenried) began abducting the tribe’s women and children in order to sell them into slavery (Hand 18). Not only were there troubles with the Tuscarora, but there was also a civil war brewing amongst the colonists “over who was the rightful governor” (Hand 18).

During this moment of instability the Tuscarora attacked the settlement. Graffenried and General John Lawson – a surveyor and explorer who was not part of the original voyage but instead bought his land from the local Indians in 1705 – were the first victims (Basinger 3). On September 10, 1711, while canoeing up the Neuse, they came across “the principle Indian village of Catechna, where the tribes were planning their war” (Hand 18). Lawson unfortunately upset an Indian chief and as punishment he was covered in pine splinters and set on fire (Basinger 4). Graffenried survived this ordeal by claiming that he was “king of the white tribe” – sparking fear into the Tuscarora’s superstition of bad fortune occurring if they killed a king – and instead they kept Graffenried as hostage while they made their attack on the settlement (Basinger 4).

On September 22, 1711 the tribe acted in revenge, attacking the settlement and capturing their women and children as hostages (Basinger 4). William Brice – an English colonist who settled prior to Graffenried – exacerbated problems when “he captured an unoffending Indian chief and roasted him alive” (Hand 18). In response, the settlers unsuccessfully formed a militia and had to get the help of Indians and militia from South Carolina to defeat the Tuscarora (Hand 18).

Recovering from these initial setbacks, New Bern flourished and became a competitor to neighboring towns. At first, the main center of government was located in the Albemarle region. In 1747 Governor Gabriel Johnson convinced the general assembly to make New Bern the official capital (Hand 19). Although New Bern was named capital, there was not a designated place for the governor’s headquarters. Instead, each succeeding governor “was free to place the capital where he wished” (Hand 20). It was not until newly instated Governor Tryon set out to create a capital building fit for a king. This building would be what we know today as Tryon Palace. But the construction of the Palace came at a cost. Governor Tryon had to buy twelve lots of land and borrow eight thousand pounds – on top of the five thousand he spent on the Palace – with accrued interest (Henry 16). This became a huge expenditure and heavily impacted the town’s economy. After three years of laborious construction, the Palace was completed in the summer of 1770 (Henry 21).

A year after its completion, Tryon became the “Royal Governor of New York” in 1771 and his successor, Josiah Martin, was named New Bern’s Royal Governor (Henry 33). Martin admired the Tryon Palace and this admiration led to frequent comments about the cost it was to the colonists (Henry 33). During the time, the Palace’s construction was controversial due to its expense of government funds, leading to resentment towards the Crown (Henry 33). Being on the brink of dissent, there was a “spirit of independence the sweeping the country” which was showcased through the Battle of Alamance in 1771 and the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775 (Henry 33). During the Battle of Lexington, Martin “was held as a virtual prisoner in the Palace, surrounded by the hostile populace from adjoining communities” (Henry 33). Martin and his family would later escape to New York seeking protection from a British war ship on Cape Fear (Henry 33-36).

Tryon Palace
A photo of Tryon Palace taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Martin’s departure and the ensuing battles of the Revolutionary War left a smell of independence perfuming the air. The next step was to have the first State Constitution established for North Carolina (Henry 36).  New government officials were inaugurated in the palace on January 16, 1777, and in 1794 Raleigh became the State Capital (Henry 36). Afterwards, the palace was no longer utilized for official affairs and instead was used for lodging (Henry 36). The drop in its powerhouse status came with the increasing ideals of freedom and independence (Carraway 17). Then, on February 27, 1798, there was a fire that burned the Main Building of the Tryon Palace (Henry 36). One source indicates it was “caused [by] a Negro woman with a torch was looking for eggs in stored hay” (Carraway 16). With the title of state capital gone and the Tryon Palace destroyed, New Bern would face more tribulations.

New Berne, North Carolina 1864
An image of New Bern, North Carolina from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

On May 1, 1864 during the civil war, troops were stationed in New Bern acting as the city police and maintaining order within the colony (Farnham & King 435). Due to poor sanitation, the town encountered a stint of yellow fever.  The troops tried to maintain cleanliness and sanitation but their efforts were futile. The Union officers blamed New Bern’s “location and indigenous population” as the cause of the foulness (Farnham & King 437). What made matters worse was the fact that few of the medical practitioners had ever encountered yellow fever (Farnham & King 438). Enduring feelings of hysteria and fatality, many soldiers from the regiment did not want to recount the epidemic after the war (Farnham & King 483). Even during the Reconstruction period, when the state had to undergo Federal occupation, many found it to be “a process that kept them from ruminating on the epidemic of 1864” (Farnham & King 483).

Caleb Bradham, inventor of Pepsi-cola.
An image of the inventor of Pepsi-cola, Caleb Bradham courtesy of the Creative Commons organization.

But New Bern bounced back by adding another item to its extensive resume – the birth of Pepsi-cola. In 1898 pharmacist Caleb Bradham came up with what we know today as Pepsi. Initially, it was known locally as “Brad’s Drink” but later it was named “Pepsi” (Hand 102). The reason behind its unique name is the active ingredient found in Pepsi called pepsin, which helped stomach digestion (Hand 103). Now paying attention to the date, you will notice its creation occurred before the start of the First World War. Knowing that war was about to erupt, Bradham bought a huge stock of sugar in fear that sugar prices would skyrocket with the war. Things turned out otherwise as the prices of sugar dropped. Facing bankruptcy, in 1920 Bradham had to sell the Pepsi trademark to Craven Holding Corporation (Hand 104). After being passed along to several different companies, the trademark finally settled with Pepsico, which now “has $32 billion in revenues and 157,000 employees” (Hand 105).

Due to its location, the town was also a valuable seaport up until the 20th century. Turpentine was one of New Bern’s main industries, along with lumber and seafood (Hand 78). World War II also boosted the economy building up different industries (Hand 78). But following this surge of business and prosperity after World War II, New Bern faced another challenge. A large number of the town’s population decreased as people began moving elsewhere (Hand 80). This heavily impacted the town since, when people moved, business moved with them. Although Although the town faced financial instability, there was still talk of reconstructing Tryon Palace.

Latham Garden located on Tryon Palace grounds.
Photo of Latham Garden taken from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1945, a commission was formed by the state legislature focusing on renovating Tryon Palace (Hand 80). The expected cost of this project accumulated to over $3,000,000 (Henry 28). Although the process was a large expenditure on the town, the reconstruction was beneficial in the long run. The Palace has become a prominent landmark for the town and generates a great amount of tourism. This became the starting point to the town’s business of preserving these historical buildings close to its original form. It is one of the unique and fascinating qualities of New Bern. Deemed as the “Athens of North Carolina”, not only can New Bern boast for being one of the oldest towns but also it is reputable for having a rich colonial history (Hatchett & Watson 12). Who else can say they are home to the first church, the birthplace of Pepsi and Tryon Palace?

From its extensive resume, we can safely assume that the town has undergone many events in its time. From clashes with the local tribes, a spell of yellow fever, even to the creation of Pepsi, this town has had its ups and downs, being able to bounce back from them all. The growth of this town is the epitome of the colonial town of today. Not only can New Bern boast for its historically and culturally rich events, but also its multifaceted qualities. The town of New Bern laid the groundwork for the ideal town of today. Seeing its foundations and rich history we get a better understanding of early colonial America further establishing the formation of America.


Works Cited

Allred, Frederick J., and Alonzo T. Dill, eds. “The Founding of New Bern: a Footnote.” The North Carolina Historical Review. Vol. 40. 1963. 361-74. Print.

Bainton, Roland H. “The Left Wing of the Reformation.” Journal of Religion 21.2 (1941): 124-134. Print.

Basinger, Marie. Enjoy, Historic New Bern, North Carolina : Land of Enchanting Waters. New Bern, N.C.: O.G. Dunn Co., c1960. Print.

Carraway, Gertrude Sprague. Tryon’s Palace : North Carolina’s First State Capitol. Raleigh, N.C.: State Dept. of Archives and History, 1947. Print.

“Chas. Emerson & Co.’s Newbern Directory.” (1880). Open Library. California State Library, 8 Sept. 2008. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.

Farnham, Thomas J., and Francis P. King. “The March of the Destroyer: the New Bern Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1864.” The North Carolina Historical Review. Vol. 73. Raleigh: The North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1996. 435-83. Print.

Hand, Bill. A Walking Guide to North Carolina’s Historic New Bern. Charleston: History P, c2007. Print.

Hatchett, and Watson, comps. Business Directory of the City of New Berne, N.C. : to Which Is Added Historical and Statistical Matter of Interest. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1893. Open Library. California State Library, 8 Sept. 2008. Web. Feb.-Mar. 2011.

Henry, Joseph D. Historic Tryon Palace : First Permanent Capitol of North Carolina, New Bern, N.C. Charlotte, N.C.: Amercraft, [c1960]. Print.

Hutchinson, Vina. New Bern. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., c2002. Print.

Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church. New York: Scribner, c1985. Print.

About the Author

Tina Soukhanouvong is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently undecided in her major, but is looking into a possible business minor and linguistics and Asian studies major.


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